THE TAMING OF THE SHREW: Girls Night Out
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
By: Quill Theatre
At: Agecroft Hall & Gardens, 4305 Sulgrave Rd., RVA 23221
Performances: July 11 – August 4, 2019
Ticket Prices: $30 Adults; $25 Seniors; $20 RVATA & Students (with ID)
Info: (804) 340-1405, quilltheatre.org or https://agecrofthall.tix.com/Schedule.aspx?OrgNum=1528
It is well known that in Shakespeare’s day all the roles, including the women, were played by male actors. Recently, we have seen role reversals in which key characters such as Hamlet have been played by women. The Richmond Shakespeare Festival has taken this twist to its ultimate conclusion with an all-female cast and mostly female crew. (On Sunday night, even Festival Manager Noah Downs kept a low profile – although I did miss his usual group selfie moment.)
This is not the first time The Taming of the Shrew, one of Shakespeare’s most misogynistic plays – perhaps one of the world’s most misogynistic plays – has been done with an all-female cast. It has been done by the Chicago Shakespeare company, where it was set in the twentieth century during the suffragette movement, it’s been presented in New York City’s Central Park, and has even been performed by Shakespeare’s Globe theater in Hong Kong. Among the many versions, there was also the musical, Kiss Me, Kate¸ which gets a humorous nod from our own Quill Theatre, at Agecroft Hall, with a cast that includes many familiar faces.
Among the many impressive performances by this outstanding ensemble, I must say that Bianca Bryan as Petruchio and Melissa Johnston Price as Baptista are standouts. Both seemed to have tapped into their inner male and it was awesome. I don’t mean that they were acting butch or doing a reverse drag, but Bryan’s swagger and Price’s doting but clueless father really captured the maleness of their characters in the best way, and they seemed to have so much fun doing it.
The Taming of the Shrew is an early Shakespearean comedy in which Petruchio, a bachelor from Verona who apparently has recently come into possession of his late father’s estate, arrives in the town of Padua, where he has friends, in search of a wealthy bride. His friend Hortensio (Desirée Dabney) suggest he marry Katarina/Kate (Michelle Greensmith), the beautiful but ill-tempered eldest daughter of Baptista. Hortensio, of course, has ulterior motives. He wants to marry Kate’s younger, more mild-mannered sister, Bianca (Christina Ramsey), but according to custom, the eldest sister must marry first.
There is no backstory, so we don’t know why Kate is such a spoiled brat, but she has few or no social graces. She is self-centered and verbally – even physically – abusive to everyone, even her father. There is no mother in sight, which may explain why Baptista allows her to behave so badly. Greensmith is so well cast for this role that at the beginning and the end, it’s almost possible to hate her. But looking at the perplexed expression of her face when Petruchio implements his devious plan, we get a glimpse of her character’s humanity. She’s someone’s daughter, someone’s wife, and like the difficult student in class, she has special needs.
There are subplots involving a trio of suitors for Bianca’s hand; Hortensio, Lucentio, and Gremio (not to be confused with another character, a servant named Grumio) and, of course, there are misunderstandings, disguises, and characters switching places with their servants. Desirèe Dabney plays Hortensio with broadly comic affability. Hortensio disguises himself as a music teacher in order to gain access to Baptista’s household and to his daughter, Bianca. Nora Ogunleye plays Lucentio, who, likewise, disguises himself as a tutor in order to woo Bianca.
In a memorable and hilarious supporting role Maggie Bavolack plays the elderly suitor Gremio. At one point Bavolack, whose character is bent over and a bit wobbly at the knees, passes her cane to a friend and performs a precarious but full somersault. It was a highlight of the evening!
Now, getting back to Kate, the use of a word like “shrew” to describe an unpleasant, nagging (another misogynistic word) woman is, itself sexist – but consider Kate’s personality. The woman has issues. Petruchio seems to be the only one who is not afraid of Kate, but the methods he uses to “tame” her terrible personality are questionable: he deprives her of food and sleep, offers her food and new clothes and withdraws them, and belittles his servants in front of her. He throws food and rips the sleeves off a dress. In short, he fights fire with fire. The bad behavior starts when he shows up late for their wedding and inappropriately dressed, but that’s the first clue that Petruchio isn’t crazy, but rather has a well-thought out plan of behavior modification to address Kate’s behavior.
And then there is Kate’s final monologue. At a wedding party for three couples – Petruchio and Kate, Hortensio and the Widow (Erica Hughes), Bianca and Lucentio – Petruchio makes a bet; each man is to send for his wife and the man whose wife most obediently responds will be declared the winner. Not only is Kate the only wife to respond, but she then makes a long speech in which she berates the other wives for not being obedient and submissive. She has been completely reformed – the shrew (which is also the name of a small mouse-like mammal) has been tamed. Just when you think it couldn’t get any more sexist or Stepford-wives-like (not a word, but I think you know what I mean), the cast breaks out into song, “Just a Girl,” which includes the lyrics, “I’ve had it up to here.”
Instead of the play’s original introduction or induction, there are songs, and between acts there are songs. Songs like The Police’s “Every Breath You Take,” (“Every move you make. . . .every breath you take, I’ll be watching you) that slyly and humorously remind us that this Taming of the Shrew is a smart, aware production led by a team of kick-ass women.
Chelsea Burke is the director of this awesome cast. There isn’t much in the way of a set, just a small platform centerstage and a couple of trunks. The most noticeable design element is the costumes, and I found Cora Delbridge’s costuming a hodgepodge of period, contemporary, and hybrid pieces that are often colorful and fun, but didn’t make any clear or cohesive statement. I did enjoy Kate’s first ensemble – a red hi-lo open front number – and Gremio’s suit was fully compatible with his character. Kate’s transformation was accompanied by changing her body skimming wedding dress for a formal pageant gown. I also liked Baptista’s power maxi-coat, but I found Bianca’s frilly dress unattractive and frankly confusing. It looked out of time and out of character.
Overlooking the bugs and the heat, it was a beautiful evening, and well worth it. The Taming of the Shrew is one of this season’s most intriguing productions, and the cast is a dream team of talent.
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
Photo Credits: Production photos were not available at the time of publication.